Back on Skis at Copper Mountain
Posted on January 17, 2019
As seen in The News-Herald – By Paris Wolfe
Gravity is my friend.
Until I get to the base of a ski mountain.
Then, I fight physics, going uphill as fast as possible. My goal: ski as much vertical feet as possible before sunset.
Colorado’s Copper Mountain, just 75 miles west of Denver, is making the uphill journey easier this year with two new lifts that increase the resort’s uphill capacity. That means shorter lift lines and more vertical feet per hour at the resort.
American Eagle, a high-speed quad chairlift installed in 1989, has been replaced with a hybrid lift that alternates four six-person chairs for every eight-person gondola cabin. Chair riders queue to the right and gondola riders to the left. While gondola cabins protect riders from the blowing and snowing outside, chairs are quicker to load and unload. Riders can pick their favorite. Either way, the new lift increases uphill capacity by 40 percent over the previous lift.
Situated next to American eagle, American Flyer also has a replacement lift — a high-speed, six-person chair with transparent blue bubble enclosures that pull down and thwart weather’s worst.
The new lifts operate out of Center Village and serve easy and intermediate terrain. American Flyer also speeds access to four high-alpine bowls. Both new lifts are replacements and maintain the net lift total at 24.
For those who haven’t visited the 46-year-old Rocky Mountain resort, Copper is a bit smaller than its more famous counterparts and is sometimes considered a “locals’ hill.” It lacks the mining camp history and town infrastructure found in ski areas such as Telluride and Breckenridge.
Instead a string of three purpose-built villages — West, Center and East — offer just what skiers want: lodging, dining and retail. And, of course, ski rentals and related services are available. The village clusters are linked by one mile of roadway and a free resort shuttle that runs continuously from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. during ski season. Together, the villages serve 2,527 skiable acres, which collect an average 300 inches of snow each year.
Each village has distinctive terrain. West Village offers mostly easier green runs, as well as some intermediate blues. Ski school meets here every morning before launching into skill-appropriate group or private lessons. Center Village serves mostly intermediate blue runs with access to more advance terrain. The largest cluster of restaurants, with 20, and shops are located here. The mountain towering above East Village is for advanced and expert skiers. It offers intermediate but not beginner options.
Overall, the resort has 148 trails. Of those, 21 percent are beginner, 25 percent intermediate and the remaining 44 percent advanced or expert. Visitors shouldn’t get too caught up in the green-blue-black rating system, however, because beginner slopes between the trees near West Village are fragrant with pine and a pleasure to ski on a snowy day.
Lift ticket prices are lower than most at $89 to $168. However, the best deals can be found online. Bargain shoppers may find that a four-pack of tickets — purchased the previous spring — can be snagged for less than $300.
I’ve been playing with gravity since 1990, but that’s no guarantee of ski skill. Improvement requires at least one ski lesson per year. This outing was particularly daunting for me because life had gotten in the way for a few years. I worried that I’d forgotten how to stand in heavy, rigid boots. As for setting my skis on edge and carving? I was insecure. So I signed up for all-day instruction.
Professional Ski Instructors of America-certified ski instructor Jon Drabik watched my first descent and promptly spotted my weakness. I was curling under my toes. (Who wouldn’t at a frigid 7 degrees?) But that singular action, he noted, was tensing my leg muscles and requiring more effort to link turns on the cold, sticky surface. He told me to flex upward my right toes when turning right and left toes when turning left. That advice softened my stance, returned my muscle memory and had me floating easily back and forth across the intermediate runs served by the Timberline Express lift.
Drabik, a Maine native, has been teaching for 29 years, 26 of those at Copper Mountain. Throughout the day, he coached me to finesse my stance. The next day — with two inches of fresh snow over a loose, groomed surface and a balmy 16 degrees — I used what I learned and added speed. With a small crowd on the mountains, I logged at least a dozen runs by noon.
Dining on the mountain is more than fueling the body. Sure, you can grab-n-go at the U.S.’s highest Starbucks, at 9,712 feet elevation. But consider sitting for a few at Toast & Co., a new breakfast/lunch spot where the most interesting thing on the breakfast menu is Kimchi Bokkeumbap. That dish has stir-fried Jasmine rice with slow-braised pork or tofu, cremini mushrooms, peppers, onions and Napa cabbage kimchi topped with two eggs, nori, and sesame seeds. I loved it.
Lunch is available at a number of taverns or places that specialize in tacos or mac-n-cheese. Farm-to-table is part of the dining mantra here.
If I’m not cooking in a condo near the slopes, dinner is often part of the entertainment in a ski town. One night I went for casual fine-dining at C.B. Grille. Elevated comfort food ranges from French onion soup to local striped trout. Another night I took the free Summit County bus to Frisco, a charming little town just nine miles away, and dined at Uptown on Main, a spot appropriately known for its Bloody Marys.
Frisco is the old mining town turned modern main street that is often found at the base of ski mountains. Only this time the strip of boutiques and restaurants is a short bus ride away.
Perhaps my dining highlight was a dinner sleigh ride with 2 Below Zero in Frisco. I joined a group of about 70 nestled in four open sleighs for a mule-drawn ride to dinner. “Gunsmoke Bob,” our sleigh driver, directed mules Martha and Mae through the starlit night for a 20-minute ride over crunchy snow.
At the venue — a well-heated, heavy-canvas lodge structure — waiters and waitresses in flannel and leather poured peppermint schnapps for adults to spike hot cocoa. Cooked onsite, dinner included chicken-cheese enchilada soup, chicken breast, steak, baked potato and vegetable medley. Two of my tablemates enjoyed a gluten-free option.
While we finished with apple pie, Nashville entertainer David Peel led the group in singing tunes by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Neil Diamond. At an unusual -3 degrees, the return sleigh ride was cold even crowded together under faux fur blankets. (The average winter temperature is usually in the low 20s.) Many forgot the cold as one rider initiated a spontaneous round of “Jingle Bells” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
With a base elevation of 9,712 feet and a summit elevation of 12,441 feet, Copper ranks as the ninth-highest ski mountain in the United States, according to OntheSnow.com. Elevation this high physically affects 40 percent of flatlanders. And keep in mind Northeast Ohio is flatland — Cleveland sits at 653 feet above sea level.
I was in that 40 percent, experiencing dizziness, shortness of breath and headaches. Copious quantities of drinking water and ibuprofen were part of my daily routine. And they helped a bit.
For those interested in a Colorado-legal Rocky Mountain high, know that marijuana use is prohibited by federal law at Copper Mountain because the resort is on federal land.